Tracking Yes - A Guide to Everyday Magic
* This is the story that launched the quest to Track Yes. Thanks to Martha Beck and her amazing Writing Masterclass for sparking the magic, and thanks to Lily for leading the way.
We were gathered around a table in the tiny, bustling top shack that was home base for Whistler Ski Patrol. The sun was just setting, the lifts had closed and the Patrol team was gearing up to head out for final sweep of the mountain, looking for any lost or injured skiers who had not yet made their way safely to the bottom.
Six dogs were waiting outside for us, some curled into tight balls, heads nestled into their underbellies for warmth, some barking at noises in the descending darkness, others lifting their noses into the approaching night, investigating messages from the frosty world around them.
‘We’ were six Avalanche Rescue Dog professionals on a week long training course, waiting for the mountain to close so we could embark on a night training exercise. We were going out into the darkness with our dogs, using headlamps as our only source of light, to ski to an unknown site that had been set up for us.
It was an avalanche burial scenario, a team had come up earlier in the day to hide 20 human-scented wool sweaters. The sweaters were buried three feet down in the snow, in various locations over a 1,000-square foot area, to mimic the scent of human bodies caught in a mass casualty avalanche.
This was an advanced course. By now I’d done countless hours of training, some in organized courses like this, and hundreds more on my own. I’d pack Lily into the car and drive up to local ski hills, burying articles and skiing after her through deep snow as she hunted them out. We learned to work as a team to find buried skiers, building the strength to move quickly through demanding terrain and relying on one another’s unique skills as we developed a bond of unshakeable trust.
Sitting inside the warm hut waiting for the call to action, I was acutely aware of my growing discomfort and anxiety. For starters, I was worried about Lily outside with a pack of dominant dogs — in particular Bozo (name changed to protect the innocent), a massive German Shepard who had been intimidating her all week. She’d steered a wide berth whenever we were in his presence, and now she was tied up in the dark right next to him. Added to that was my own sense of intimidation. There were six trained professionals in the room, but in my mind, there were five.
The five of them. Plus me.
And my story.
I did not belong in this group. Each one of the others was extraordinary, infinitely more trained and skilled than I was, and I suspected they knew this. I was an imposter who had somehow managed to slip in undetected, and it was only a matter of time until I was busted.
I was not making shit up. I had concrete evidence and my mind was happy to deliver it, conjuring a memory from our final day on the previous year’s course. We had just met up with the head of Mountain Safety for the ski hill who was taking us into the backcountry for a day to assess our mountain travel skills. He was directly behind me in the chair lift line and I was watching the ‘extraordinary people’ on the team load the chairs ahead of me, one by one swinging their backpacks onto the seat beside them as they loaded.
My practice was to ride the lift with my pack on, leaving my hands free for my poles and dog, but as I skied onto the loading platform, I made a split second decision to do what they were all doing and take my pack off. As I got tangled up in the extra time that took — the chair slammed into me, knocking me off my feet and planting me face down in the snow. I lay there doing the math…how many pairs of eyes were focused entirely on me, and what were those eyes thinking? I would have given anything to disappear in that moment.
Now, in this moment, I had completely forgotten why I loved doing this work and was conjuring all manner of new humiliation scenarios, desperately wishing that I had not brought myself into this ridiculously challenging situation yet again. I was fixated on one thing — there was only room for brilliance on this team, and I was not that. Next to THEM, I was painfully ordinary and wildly incompetent.
I was navigating an impractical desire to flee when the call came in.
We stepped out into the darkness, our headlamps reflecting off the eyes of our dogs. Lily leapt to her feet, at full attention, tail wagging, ready for adventure. As I put on her harness and night light, her whole body began to wag with anticipation; she knew she was going to work — her favourite thing. Time to shine. I paused for a moment to connect with her and recalled something I had heard a thousand times in my training: “Trust your dog.”
After skiing ten minutes through the dark forest, we arrived on scene. Our Site Commander assigned one dog and handler to each of four quadrants and gave us our marching orders: “You have 30 minutes to locate and excavate five sweaters. Go.” I had just unleashed Lily and begun assembling my probe and shovel when Bozo the Shepard came galloping into our area from the site beside us. I switched into high alert, bracing for a conflict when, to my utter amazement, Lily spun on her heels and charged straight at him with a ferocious “Rawwwrr!!” that said, in no uncertain terms, “Back off Jackass, the boundary is HERE”. He tucked his tail between his legs and ran off into the night, and she turned her attention back to the work at hand.
Lily’s keen nose was in high gear as she took off switchbacking across the slope, fearlessly disappearing into the darkness, the tiny beacon of light on her harness dimming in the distance and then re-emerging as she charged back at top speed. I’d never worked with her in the dark and was astounded to see that for her it made absolutely no difference. She was using her highly tuned senses and feeling her way.
A dog tracking what she wants lives only in possibility, looks for yes; is uninterested in no. Clipping along through a vast expanse of no, she’d suddenly catch a human scent, put the brakes on, lift her nose high to confirm the yes she’d just detected, and race off in its direction. She led me to the first four buried sweaters quickly, and we had them dug out within 15 minutes of being on site.
That left one more to find, and this one was not going to be easy. The remaining search area was above us, on a very steep, wind-hammered slope. As we ascended, the snow became increasingly bullet proof, so hard that it was nearly impossible to hold an edge, and my skis began slipping with every step. My heart was racing, my attention riveted in the present moment. Losing an edge here would mean a long, dangerous fall; and a lot of lost time climbing back up out of terrain already covered.
We were neck deep in it now. Every moment the final sweater remained buried represented one more minute a human was trapped under the snow, the clock on their life ticking down. I realized I’d have to take my skis off and boot kick the final 60 to 70 feet to the top. I’d only be able to kick my toes about an inch into the frozen slope, so it would be like tip-toeing precariously up a steep, slippery wall. I had zero enthusiasm for this plan, but it was the best of two bad options. I dug deep and found my courage, remembering why I choose these experiences. I feel most alive when I’m pushing past the boundaries of my comfort zone, drawing on my physical, mental and emotional resources in order to meet what life is offering up.
I wrestled to get my skis off and plant their tails in the rock hard snow, a dodgy balancing act that took all my concentration. That done, I collected my poles and wits, ready to start kicking steps, and looked upward.
High above, in the beam of my headlamp, I caught a glint of movement. Trying to make it out in the darkness, I realized it was Lily, glissading downhill on her back toward me. Shaking her head to and fro with joy, she cascaded past me, proudly tossing around the final buried sweater she’d just uncovered from 40 feet above. Mission accomplished.
As my headlamp followed her tumble I felt a wave of profound gratitude for her skill and courage — and massive love for this badass red dog that had my back. It was a moment of complete rightness. The stars themselves were twinkling in celebration.
My relationship with Lily shifted that night. In all the years I thought that my yes had been leading her, hers had also been leading me. In our adventures together, on the mountain and off, she continually shows me that when I step out of my stories and curiously engage with life unfolding — I get to play in the realm of magic